Skip to main content

E&C Republicans Press NIH and CDC Over Safety Gaps with Virus Hunting to Prevent Next Pandemic


09.28.22

Concerns Arise That Human Researchers’ Interactions with Bats in the Wild May Have Caused COVID-19 Pandemic

Washington, D.C. — House Energy and Commerce Committee Republican Leader Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Subcommittee on Health Republican Leader Brett Guthrie (R-KY), and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Republican Leader Morgan Griffith (R-VA) are demanding the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide a briefing on gaps in safety standards for virus hunting and how policies can be improved to address these gaps.

In a letter to NIH Acting Director Lawrence Tabak and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, the Republican members show the gaps in oversight of safety during virus-hunting in bat caves. For example, journalists have documented lapses in wearing protective gear by both EcoHealth Alliance and its sub-grantee, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). A video even showed WIV researchers being bitten by bats. NIH’s grant to EcoHealth Alliance has been suspended since July 2020, spurred in part due to biosafety monitoring concerns.

The NIH and CDC jointly publish the Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL) manual, the guidance for lab safety standards.

KEY EXCERPT: “Since 1984, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have issued editions of the overarching guidance document for the practice of biosafety in the U.S.—Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL)—to address the safe handling and containment of infectious microorganisms and hazardous biological materials. However, the BMBL and traditional biosafety practices have focused on laboratory settings. We write to inquire about existing policies at the CDC and NIH on biosafety practices for virus hunting or field research (including through the BMBL) and for the agencies to discuss addressing any gaps in policies and best practices with committee staff. Safety concerns with virus-hunting raised in recent reports and articles and from our oversight into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic suggest the need for enhanced training and oversight of biosafety practices in the field.”

[…]

“Even if it is not connected to the origins of the pandemic, the risks are apparent and biosafety practices need to be strengthened as our oversight examines the risks and benefits of virus-hunting research to prevent pandemics.”

The members ask the NIH and CDC to give Energy and Commerce Committee staff a briefing on biosafety guidelines for collecting and sampling viruses from animals in the wild. Currently, the BMBL doesn’t include field research, which has the members and experts with concerns that there’s currently a lack of biosafety standards over virus hunting practices that have the potential to start a pandemic.

The request for a staff briefing arises from EcoHealth Alliance’s virus hunting in bat caves and its partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). The members are investigating the possibility that the virus could have originated from bats in unsafe virus-hunting practices.

KEY EXCERPT: “Biosafety concerns over virus hunting have been elevated by the scrutiny over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the suspicions about the possible role of the EcoHealth – WIV partnership. Both of these entities have a history of not always following safety precautions for virus hunting or in the laboratory.

“In its grant proposal to the NIAID, EcoHealth acknowledged the high risks and need for specific safety requirements in its virus-hunting:

“‘…Fieldwork involves the highest risk for exposure to SARS or other CoVs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled. There is also some risk of exposure to pathogens or physical injury while handling bats, civets, rodents or other animals, their blood samples or their excreta… We have strict procedures for handling bats and working with samples from them as they are secured in the field and transported to the lab. Field team members handling animals will be trained to utilize personal protective equipment and practice proper environmental disinfection techniques. This includes wearing coveralls or dedicated clothing, nitrile gloves, eye protection, and a P95 or P100 respirator. All field clothing and equipment will be disinfected using Virkon disinfectant. [Emphasis added.]’

“However, public reports indicate EcoHealth staff did not always adhere to their own safety requirements. A journalist along on one of EcoHealth’s expeditions to the bat-filled caves witnessed at least one EcoHealth staffer not following the requirements for using personal protective equipment (PPE).

“EcoHealth’s research partner, the WIV, also had documented biosafety lapses. A video released two years before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic showed WIV scientists’ lax use of PPE and being bitten by bats that carry deadly viruses such as SARS. The video revealed that they showed ‘a shocking disregard for safety when handling potentially infectious bats both in the wild and in the lab.’”

In addition to requesting a briefing for staff, the members ask Acting Director Tabak and Director Walensky to answer the following questions by October 12, 2022:

  • Groups of scientists are trying to discover new viruses to study their potential for pathogenesis in human and animals as well as their potential to cause an outbreak, an epidemic or a pandemic. Are there currently any policies or guidelines for such scientific work to be performed in a safe and secure manner?
  • Do you think it is prudent for the U.S. government to establish appropriate policies and guidelines for safely working with such viruses and associated biological materials, since they may possess the potential for zoonosis and could contribute to the next outbreak, epidemic or a pandemic if handled inappropriately?
  • Should the current BMBL devote a section to cover this concern and need?
  • What are the risks associated with field-related activities, such as the collection of specimens from bats or other wildlife sources and the potential for SARS-like CoV infection of staff?
  • During the processing of these samples for virus isolation, these materials might be subjected to multiple passages in a cell culture. Multiple passaging might contribute or lead to mutational events with adaptation resulting in a virus that is now capable of infecting humans or animals. How do you monitor for it and ensure such adaptation does not happen?

CLICK HERE to read the letter to NIH Acting Director Tabak and CDC Director Walensky.

CLICK HERE to read more about the investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Covid Origins